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Dan Ariely's Proposal for Reducing Piracy

Behavorial economics is the study of how psychology affects people's behavior in economic situations, and Dan Ariely is one of the discipline's susperstars.

Three days after releasing his new book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, he discovered it had already been illegally downloaded over 20,000 times. Being a scientist, his primary response was curiousity as to why people steal intellectual property.

He describes his process of understanding in this blog post:
My first insight came with a personal conversion. Before it was my book being illegally downloaded, I was more on the “Information wants to be free” end of the spectrum. The sudden, though predictable, shift in my feelings when I found my own work being downloaded for free was a jarring experience. Maybe Information finds complete freedom too threatening, I thought, and maybe it would rather be a bit more protected. It was a very clear example of how my own views of morality are biased – as are everybody’s — based on our immediate perspective.
Somehow I don't find it hard to believe that the more time, money, and effort you've spent on your album, the less likely you'd support giving it away for free.

He continues with another gem:
Once people start seeing a particular behavior—such as illegally downloading books, music, and movies—as a very common behavior, there is a chance that this sense of social proof will translate into a new understanding of what is right and wrong. Sometimes such social shifts might be desirable—for instance, being part of an interracial couple used to be considered illegal and immoral, but now we see such couples all around us and it helps shape our understanding of social approval. However, the behaviors we most often observe and notice are ones that are outside of the legitimate domain (e.g., doping in sports, infidelity by politicians, exaggerated resumes by CEOs) and in these cases the social proof can change things for the worse.
In other words, piracy is the new speeding on the highway.

So how does he propose we attempt to solve this sticky problem?

He suspects it's about confession:
How can we stop such trends toward dishonesty (in this case, broader acceptance of illegal downloading)? The problem is that if someone has acquired 97% of their music illegally, why would they legally buy the next 1%?  Would they do it in order to be 4% legal?  It turns out that we view ourselves categorically as either good or bad, and moving from being 3% legal to being 4% legal is not a very compelling motivation.  This is where confession and amnesty can come into play.
What we find in our experiments is that once we start thinking of ourselves as polluted, there is not much incentive to behave well, and the trip down the slippery slope is likely.  This is the bad news.  The good news is that in such cases, confession, where we articulate what we have done wrong, is an incredibly effective mechanism for resetting our moral compass.  Importing this religious practice into civic life was effective in the Truth and Reconciliation Act in South Africa, where acknowledging the many abuses and violations of the apartheid government allowed the South Africans to forgive past sins, and start fresh.
While I applaud new ideas of anti-piracy that aren't "sue them into oblivion", I do see a few potential snags this method.

First, if there's not enough political capital to push through complete amnestry for those who admit to piracy, the actual policy that would pass could become a "temporary stay of prosecution" instead of full forgiveness. For example, Obama's pledge to not deport young immigrants for two years was described by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as "It is not immunity; it is not amnesty. It is an exercise of discretion."

A reversable immunity is a worthless immunity.

Second, this method would require pirates to register their personal information in a database. Given how closely piracy advocates align with privacy advocates, this will be a very tough sell. If you were a regular offender, would you want your name on an offical list?

As always, I must note that I DO NOT SUPPORT PIRACY. But, given that piracy has become the new speeding on the highway, I write to help your band understand how to live in the new music industry.


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